/ Food & Drink, Money, Shopping

Brits use credit and savings just to pay for food

A chip and pin card machine

Every month we publish new data, showing how different consumers are faring and feeling in the tough economic climate. This month, we identified how many households are struggling to pay for food.

Our latest Consumer Insight Tracker data found that five million UK households needed to use credit or savings to cover their spending on food last month.

That’s a huge number, so we looked deeper to find out who these people are. We discovered that many of them are low-income families, they’re likely to be financially vulnerable and are typically aged 30-49 years old with children. Nearly half of these families are on the lowest incomes, earning £21,000 or less per year.

With food prices rising in the last year, it isn’t surprising that shoppers tell us that the cost of food is one of their top three worries. Eight in 10 of the struggling households say they’re worried about food prices. More than half say they plan to cut back spending on food in the coming months. However, others feel they’re not able to cut back when trying to feed their households.

Using savings to pay for food

I was shocked by these findings. I didn’t realise so many people can’t afford to cover their monthly food bill. And as well as using credit and savings to cover their spending, it seems struggling households are resorting to all sorts of means to get by and put food on the table. A third of them borrowed money from family or friends, while more than one in 10 defaulted on a bill last month.

While they use more credit and whittle down their savings, I’m not surprised that two thirds of these households are worried about their savings levels and the same proportion are worried about their levels of debt.

The food budgeting challenge

I’ve had a look into how much people typically spend on their food bills – around £76 a week on average. Yet, in the last year food prices have risen by around 4% – something has to give.

I do most of my food shopping online and, to save money, always check the special offers to see what deals I can get. Although, sometimes it means we eat the same thing for a few days just because it’s reduced! I’ve also discovered a great fruit and veg stall at our local market that’s much cheaper than going to the supermarket.

In a previous Conversation, DiB shared a tip for making your food budget go further, while acknowledging that it’s not always an easy tip to follow:

‘In the present economic climate many shoppers go for the cheap option rather than value. I found that buying better quality means I buy less, waste less, and it goes further. But then when I’m faced with what’s in my purse at the time the better quality product often stays on the shelf.’

What action have you taken to make ends meet and cover food bills? How have you noticed the impact of increased food prices on your monthly spending?


I’m not sure how anyone can make that inference, unless the household has no income at all.

The basic needs of any human are: food and water, then shelter and clothing. After that, sanitation, education, healthcare, transportation, etc.

So expenditure of £22,000 and income of £21,000 means there is a £1,000 shortfall in my budget. If I draw on my savings, or use my credit card in the supermarket to help with the shortfall, it does not mean I cannot afford to buy the most essential of human needs – food – even though I might choose to view it that way.

It probably means most of my income has gone towards paying what are seen as non-deferrable expenses – mortgage interest or rent, heating, transport to get to work, etc. And possibly optional expenditure, such as consumer durables, other transport, entertainment, and some clothing.

By focusing on food in this somewhat sensationalist way, other areas where government policy could make a bigger difference to the cost of life’s basic needs get ignored:

The UK requires cheaper, better quality and more efficient housing. The high cost of housing in this country is largely the result of planning controls and an industry cartel that has flourished on the back of it.

Lower domestic energy costs – don’t forget there is an extra 5% government tax (VAT) on all heating and lighting.

Public transport in the UK is expensive compared to many other countries.

The high cost of water and sanitation.

Michael Howe says:
5 May 2013

I wonder if this survey took into account expenditures on such things as payments for satellite television, tickets for football clubs upgrading to new cars, larger televisions etc. when these items are not really necessary.

Hmm. Not only the conclusion, but the methodology to arrive at this conclusion seems flawed:

“Populus, on behalf of Which?, interviewed 2,078 UK adults **ONLINE** between 15 and 17 March 2013.”

I don’t know about anyone else here, but if I had to choose between paying my food bill and my ISP bill, I know which one I would do without!

I would be very interested to see the actual credit card statement and weekly shopping bills of one of these consumers. Perhaps you could run a Convo on this and we can come up with other helpful money-saving tips – apart from how to economise on food.

Nick Weeks says:
5 May 2013

I’m sure plenty of posters have a lot to feel smug about, but the reality for many people is that there just isn’t enough cash for energy and food. If you’re on benefits, Some kind of phone and internet connection are essential, especially if you’re looking for work. Many of those unexpectedly out of work will have long-term contracts (for example, Sky or gymn subscriptions) that can take a year to cancel, so these aren’t always luxuries that can be controlled! I know – it took me eight months to work through such items when I lost my last job.

Before posting smug condemnations of the feckless poor, please stop and think. If you lost your job or became too disabled to work tomorrow (or if both of you did, if you’re in a two-income household), how .long would it take you to set yourself up to live on the dole? What would you do if the fridge or boiler broke? How long would it take before you were able to grow even basic salads to cut down on food costs – what’s the waiting time for an allotment if you don’t have a garden?

The lecturing and patronising approach that some people take to the very real problems of poverty is a real contributor to the marginalisation that many of us feel.

If you are looking for “smug”, I suggest you check out the opinions expressed in the 400 or so comments on the BBC report about this artice.

I am simply trying to question, in as non-judgemental way as I can, whether the results of this “survey” are valid, the methodology is sound and whether it does anything to help those who live in real poverty by reporting these findings in a sensationalist way. This seems to be more about inappropriate financial management and life-style choices, not circumstance.

My grandmother was widowed in WWI and brought up 9 children. She grew vegetables, had chickens, the occasional pig or cow, even into her 90’s when she lived on her own. She did not have a credit card nor any other debts I was aware of. According to my mother, there was always food on the table when she was a girl, if not much else.

And yes, I have been unemployed for several months and lived off my savings, as I did not believe it right to rely on State benefits if I didn’t have to. There are 2.5 million unemployed in the UK, but Which? is reporting that 5 million households are buying food on credit. 50% of those households must be doing something wrong.

I agree with all your comments completely! I was diagnosed with angina and a hiatus hernia in Sep 2012 at the age of 60 and was put on sick pay of £73 per week! First time ever after having paid tax and national insurance for 44 years!,,Funds soon went downhill all the way and I have never been out of my overdraft zone since! Technically I should have been on a pension at 60 but recent government changes had put paid to that. I have recently had the Atos medical to decide if I am fit to return to work (on strong medication, limited capability etc) their questions do not relate to your illness whatsoever but whether you can make a meal, walk short distances, wet the bed, etc etc, very basic stuff that many people although tired every day with their various chronic illnesses and medications can still do for themselves. I have already lost my job as I am at risk driving and operating machinery so it will be interesting to see the outcome of the medical! Please don’t tar us all as scroungers or put us in call centres.

Socratic Elenchus says:
5 May 2013

What about those who use credit cards for cashback?

M.D. says:
5 May 2013

Plenty of people like myself use the Santander 123 credit card because it actually saves me money
on my purchases including Food, clothing ,petrol and Direct Debits for Gas Electricity, council Tax etc, so your survey is not accurate.

Horseman says:
5 May 2013

Exactly right. Many people use credit cards for all regular shopping and pay their bills off every month – and some take advantage of the caskbacks on some credit cards. Misguided research on this occasion.

From the introduction: ….five million UK households needed to use credit or savings to cover their spending on food last month

This does not include everyone who uses a credit card, just those who NEED to. Which? is not infallible, but I really don’t think they are totally incompetent. 🙂

Katilea says:
5 May 2013

I am deaf wheelchair user and mostly housebound as i can’t use phone easily I contact many people online via email including vets, and only use minicom for things like GP etc. Sky add £5 if you don’t take their phone too but can’t get 60% rebate via BT for text calls taking,longer.

Also have mobility scooter to walk my dogs to local fields and a smaller power chair for when I need to get into doctors surgery, a taxi etc. Now i need seat riser on chair to reach cupboards without falling. I don’t pay PA wages as can’t afford constant outgoings I try look on ebay for cheap second hand chair that has what I need on it but batteries are over £100 when need them.

Now have 2 dogs my eldest is retired as my helper as she has arthritis and I have pup in training so two dogs foods and Insurance to pay for. I’m training this pup myself due to long waiting lists for canine partners etc and to eliminate the need to travel across the country for training,.

It costs me £25 to get my powerchair to nearest town so it’s cheaper to get everything delivered and family take me into town a few times a year in their cars but then can only use manual so they have to push me and can’t carry as much. (to buy any bulk buy deals).

I do not go out socially as village pub is not wheelchair accessible and been deaf/speech impaired too makes communication difficult in poorly lit pubs and my night vision is not good for getting home (or getting there in winter when dark early)

I don’t bother buying clothes as only go out for meals a few times a year when family take me out birthday & xmas just replace underwear, trakkie pants etc off ebay usually used and £5-£10.

I don’t have car and cannot drive.. other than basic utility bills and sky (one entertainment pack) and BB I try to avoid any regular outgoings that soon add up so don;’t have cleaner on regular basis haven’t even had grass cut yet as once they start they want to come every 2 weeks until about Oct, so thats another £30 a month out.

I’m also gluten free so things like getting couple of small loaves of bread to last the month they are nearly £3 each versus like 80p for a warburtons toastie. If i eat normal wheat food I get alot of pain and cramps. I also cut out meat and get like several packs of quorn mince for price of a couple of chicken breasts or a bit of lamb. lunch foods are my main meal like beans on toast and I treat myself to a sunday dinner so have one proper meal chicken breast, veg and roast potatoes once a week.

I have still not been sent a bill for my bedroom tax I’ve been emailing my HA for a month now, and still trying to find out how much they want me to pay and when!

This time last year I wqas almost in debt luckily I still had a few Sterling tTavellers Cheques to help pay my bills which were mor eof a problem than previous years. How I managed it I don’t know but all my bill were quit ehigh. I ve been for the past 15 months paying this months statements with nrext months pay cheque.so almost leaving with would have been a shotfall of over £300. The same likewise the previous years. With food prices, Car Tax, Motor Insurance, Household Insurance (Building & Contents) Car SEvicing & MOT together all from the previous November right up tl Now. What really bothers me is the rate of which fue;l prices puch up the cost of food to the consumer and whats more is that Supermarkets like Morrisons putting up the prices up all the time and at the same time Sponsering Saturday Night TV wwhere to presenters who have become Multi-millionairs on these TV programmes and ordinary people like myuself are struggling to put food on the table. We are all paying for all of this with highly over priced items at this brand of Supermarket.

For instance a 1ltr bottle of Robinsons Lemon Barley Water is priced at £1.99.since last November. Before it sponsered that TV programme it was priced bewteen £1.00 to £1.50 with would be included as a special offer all the time. Now all known Supermarkets have now holding their food priced artificially high, well above the the affordability of the usual consumer.

Last year I was on the brink of borroing of friends & reletives to make ends meeet. Luckily for me I didn’t get that far bad, but its seems only a matter of time as I’m in the public sector and we have to suffer another pay freeze yet again.

I’m with Em on this topic – a lot of very good points, largely along the lines that lifestyle has consequences. Rising energy prices have been mentioned a lot and the VAT element is a pernicious factor. Every year the bills go up and every year heaps of additional revenue are shovelled into the Exchequer, quietly and invisibly, rarely mentioned by the media. No wonder it has been possible to rein in the motor fuel tax escalator, but this doesn’t help the needy who probably can’t benefit from any reduction in vehicle taxation. As frequently highlighted in other Which? Conversation topics, the extra charges imposed on gas and electricity to support alternative energy sources, and the smart-metering burden, also bear heavily on the poorest households.

Housing costs, food, energy costs are all essential. TV and broadband is becoming more essential, especially as you have to apply for benefits via internet. I have a TV and broadband package for under £21 per month and that includes all calls under one hour in UK and thirty six other countries. Cheaper deals are available if you shop around.
Now I accept all of the above is a necessity and for some I would add a car to the list. Living in areas not served well by public transport or working shifts may prevent you getting to a job if you don’t have a car.

No way can I accept that TV subscriptions are in any way an essential. Freeview offers a reasonable choice for anyone, especially those who are having difficulty paying for food. I would love to watch golf on Sky but would have to pay over £60 per month to do so. I just can’t justify that cost even though I could afford it.

Dan says:
17 May 2013

What about when u lose your job and are tied into contracts for TV Broadband mobile phone etc or outstanding loans that i could easily afford before lpsing my job etc its not a black and white issue do i pay my bills and maintain my credit rating thts taken me 30years to get and go hungry or do i eat not pay the bills and screw up my future credit options ????

Dan says:
17 May 2013

It seems to me most the people commenting on here have never had the misfortune to be on benefits. Until November last year I had always worked and never claimed but then as a direct result of the financial situation i lost my job. What most people dont realize or take into account os that one month i was taking home £2500 and lived within my means however because i lost my job doesnt mean that credit such as loans and mobile, tv, broadband contracts dont suddenley disappear !!! Then I go from £2500 per month to £71 per week !!! Even with concessions from my creditors i have now cleaned out my savings and am currently attempting to feed myself on £10 per week !! I know therr are some who dont want to work but id like to know how they are clothing heating and feeding themselves as I am really struggling here ive lost 4stone since i finished work making me 10.5st and im a 6ft tall man!!!!!!!!!


I think you are quite right about most of those posting here not having experience of benefits.
I admit to being in full employment until I had to take early retirement. I was once made redundant with about 15 weeks notice so had plenty of time to find another job. In the period before I got the new job I was very worried as at the time I did not have anybody to rely on for help if I got into difficulty. I have never had to manage on the amounts you mention so have no awareness as to how it feels to try and manage with only £10 per week for food.

I wish you well in your search for a job and hope you will soon be able to return here to announce your success.

Dan says:
18 May 2013

Thankyou Figgerty for your kind words and encouxragement.. Just what I needed today been feeling very down. Thankyou..x